Time to Celebrate?

Today, the World Health Organization and Unicef Joint Monitoring Program released a report that the world has met the drinking water target of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

There’s no question that the latest report from the folks tracking progress of this MDG contains a lot of good news.  Millions of people throughout the world have received “improved” (not necessarily clean or safe) access to water over the last decade.

Many good people have been working hard during that time to focus the world’s attention on what we know to be a foundational building block in improving people’s lives – access to clean, safe water.  We’re keenly aware that without goals like these and the attention they generate, the progress we see today would likely have been far less.

So, first let’s celebrate that.  A rising tide indeed floats a lot of boats.

At the same time though, let’s not get carried away in claiming “success” in meeting any goal just yet. There is far too much work left to do.

As the report spells out so clearly, in graph after graph and map after map, the rural poor living in many sub-Saharan African countries are still missing out on even the most modest progress toward basic access to water.  That’s not to say that some very good things have not been accomplished there too.  They have.  But the new data released this week makes clear what we have long suspected.

The relative ease of providing access to water in urban centers, affluent neighborhoods, or in rapidly developing economies belies a universal truth of low-hanging fruit.  The easy work will always get done first.

That’s not an indictment of what has been done or the decisions made to begin in these places.  Instead, it should serve as a good reminder that the work gets harder from here.   Progress will not continue at this pace unless we re-double (or better) our commitments.

A voice to the voiceless

From the beginning, we at The Water Project have recognized that organizations like ours have a unique opportunity to focus on the poorest of the poor.  This report simply reminds us that many of these voiceless communities, so often last in line for everything, are still little better off than they were.  The need is as great as ever.

According to the report, “The number of  people in rural areas using unimproved water sources is five times greater than in urban areas,” and “in sub-Saharan Africa…only 35 per cent of people in the poorest quintile [use an improved drinking water source]”.

It’s just one reason The Water Project has chosen to work out away for the center of town.  It’s why we seek out partners dedicated to these folks.  We believe our small, nimble and indigenous partners – often longstanding members of the communities they serve – are best qualified to lay the groundwork for the kinds of interventions needed to break the cycle of poverty.  Investments like a new water project fundamentally change the landscape in these communities and unlock human potential.   Water is the means, a beginning and not the end.  We’ll continue working toward these beginnings in poor rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa until these voices join their fellow citizens, rising from poverty under their own power.

As we do, we need to be honest.  Working at this scale, out among the poor, is hard.

We know it’s hard because it happens face to face, in the messy relationships of community.  We must account for a myriad of cultural challenges, non-existent infrastructure, broken promises, wrong motivations, and unexpected setbacks.  In fact, we expect to spend a good amount of time being disappointed.  It’s that tough.  But it’s the truth when you’re committed to people, not hardware.

Still, all the while, we eagerly anticipate success amidst these trials.  They are indeed that much sweeter for everyone involved.  When our partners have installed a new water pump with a community and not just for it, a much greater good becomes possible.  Voices get a little louder.

Resetting the bar

Access to clean and safe water is a lofty goal.  Indeed the standard we’re setting for our projects goes far beyond what is being celebrated today.  It’s something you’ll see us talking a lot about this year.

With your help, we’ll have the time, the resources and the passion to lend a hand even when these goals seems impossible.  We are more convinced than ever that the investments we make in people’s lives, by providing something as simple as a water well, will pay huge dividends to the people of the communities we serve, and ultimately to the world we share.

Today, with a bit more dirt under our fingernails, we’re ready to take what we’ve learned and double-down on the challenge.  We’re prepared to raise the flag of hard-slogging, back-breaking, disappointment-ridden work for the people who need it most.  After all, we never said this would be easy.

So, here’s to a new goal.  Let’s prepare to celebrate the day we close our doors for good…when no one needs our help anymore to find something to drink.

And until then… let’s get back to work.